Over the last twenty years, I have seen the ongoing professionalisation of youth workers leave a tight grip around emotional attachment in mentoring – and while stricter guidelines are undoubtedly necessary for child protection, I have always stood firm in my belief that caring is absolutely essential for effective youth work.
Mentors have to care. I can train mentors in health & safety and I can educate them in our company values, but I can’t teach compassion. When recruiting new mentors, a caring heart and a vision for young people is my number one priority – everything else comes later. Our role at VIP is to facilitate and foster that care, and create an environment where mentors can demonstrate that care, which is safe for both them and their mentees.
How do you create that safe environment for VIP mentoring to flourish?
Mentors should be forthright and clear in their purpose – they are there to help the mentee. While mentoring is naturally a two-way process (and I expect that mentors enjoy what they do) things become problematic when the mentor starts meeting their own needs through the relationship. Emotional attachment is a vital component of mentoring; emotional dependency is toxic. Through careful supervision and our own relationships with the mentors, we ensure the mentor isn’t inadvertently prioritising themselves within VIP, and sacrificing the mentee’s development in favour of feeding their own needs.
The role of team in mentoring relationships
VIP aims to develop a sense of vision in the young person for their own life, a vision that the mentor needs to have first in order to cultivate it within the mentee. In a lot of ways, I see the mentor like a coach in the 100m sprint; there are going to be frustrations and barriers along the way that the mentor and mentee will meet together, and while at the end of the day the mentee is crossing the finish line, the mentor is essential to getting them there.
That being said, I believe we all have a part to play in helping the mentee make that journey. At group meetings, the whole team inputs into each other’s cases –and I encourage mentors not to discuss problems, but rather seek areas for progress. The meetings are naturally mentor-led, and a vital part of both our paid and volunteer programmes. They are often a springboard for how mentors can see developments beyond the traditional scheme – as VIP does not and should not finish after a half-hour session once a week.
The goal is not to create dependency between the mentee and mentor, but help the mentee find independency themselves, and further their integration within their community. This can manifest through mentor/mentee pairs meeting up with other pairs socially, and holiday programmes that work in tandem with VIP. I also believe that our partnership approach should extend to the parents of our young people – and our mentors often make strong links with the families of their mentees, getting involved in birthdays and other family events.
One relationship isn’t enough – I always use ‘The Battle at Kruger’ to make this point, as nothing demonstrates the value of community like a trip into nature. Just as wildebeest can work together to take down the king of the jungle, through teamwork, accountability and compassion we can see massive change for our young people.